Across the country, states are opening up the doors to the 2020 hunting season. Between tags, draws, licenses, permits, and more, there’s a lot to decode. We’re here to help.
When I first started hunting, navigating the system of simply getting the right hunting tags and licenses for my first hunt was overwhelming. And it’s further complicated by the fact that each state manages its system of licensing hunters differently. It’s easy to get confused.
There are, however, some similarities in the way that many states run their programs. It might take a bit of decoding, but once it falls in line, navigating year after year gets easier and easier.
These are general descriptions of the differences between licenses, tags, and permits. But don’t forget to check your state’s hunting regulations to see how descriptions may slightly differ.
In most states, you need to take a hunter’s education class before receiving your first valid hunting license. You will be required to present the hunter’s education certificate (or verify it in one of several ways) to buy licenses for the rest of your life. So hunter’s ed, as it’s known by many, is your first step in hunting. If you haven’t taken it yet, sign up now before pursuing a license.
A license is typically bought yearly — some states do offer lifetime licenses — and it proves that you’ve completed hunter’s ed, paid certain required fees, and it may even grant you permission to hunt certain species.
Licenses tend to be sold by species, such as deer, or type, such as small game. Many states allow you to buy a combined license, such as a combined small-game and fishing license. And there are many possible combinations.
An outlier in the world of licenses would be the Federal Duck Stamp. Because waterfowl are migratory, you’re required to have a Federal Duck Stamp if you’re a waterfowl hunter 16 years of age or older nationwide. The stamp is a unique conservation effort, and it’s supported conserving 5.7 million acres of strategic waterfowl habitat in its 85 years of action. Don’t go waterfowl hunting without it.
My Montana Sportsman’s Package includes my Fishing License and General Deer, Elk, Upland Bird, and Black Bear tags. I have to add a bunch of licenses to it, including conservation and base hunting licenses. I also add my archery license (which requires a separate hunter’s ed course) and a turkey tag. Which brings us to our next subject.
A hunting tag is the piece of paper that you attach to an animal that you’ve killed and is in your possession. Most tags require a date and a signature, and there are a lot of ways you can acquire a tag. Tags work in conjunction with your hunting license. Without a license, you can’t get a tag.
Some tags you can purchase over the counter, which means you can walk into a local store that sells licenses and tags, and you can simply pay and get a tag right there and then. Tags can also come with your license if packages are made available by your state.
On the other hand, some tags are highly coveted. States run lotteries to pick the number of tags allotted for the most desired species, usually big game. These lotteries are often referred to as “draws.” Many states often offer point systems that allow you to rack up a point when you don’t draw an animal in a given year, and these points give you higher odds of drawing a tag further down the line.
Tags can also come in a few different options. Most states differentiate between general tags (usually for antlered animals) and antlerless tags (often called B tags) in some way or another. Your general tag can allow you to take a bull with antlers, or sometimes an animal of either sex. But antlerless tags are typically extra tags you can purchase for animals that are not yet antlered, which can include yearlings and females.
Hunting permits can work in tandem with tags to enhance hunting opportunities. And lotteries can and do apply to many permits. A few years back, I drew a special permit in a lottery that allowed me to hunt bull elk in a unit while using my general tag. So in addition to carrying my general elk tag, I carried the permit when I hunted that particular unit.
On that particular permit, I could also hunt any other general unit in my state. But some permits require that you only hunt in that particular unit. It’s really important to read the guidelines for any tags or permits you’re applying for.
The language in some states for tags and permits can be a gray area. Tags can be location-specific, negating the need for a permit. And a permit can act as a tag that dictates where you should be hunting.
If you have trouble defining the difference in your state, I suggest calling your local fish and wildlife office, and they can help walk you through it. For example, Pennsylvania uses permits for deer rather than tags. And Idaho uses both tags and permits to delineate hunting boundaries.
Resident vs. Non-Resident Status
Residents are required to have lived in their state for a certain period. Here in Montana, it’s a 6-month requirement. A lease agreement or your new driver’s license can usually help establish residency. Residents often pay minimal fees and have a lot of great options for hunting within state boundaries.
You’ll find that if you want to hunt outside your state, you’ll likely be ponying up a lot more cash, and you might be subject to lotteries and draws that residents avoid. Planning ahead for out-of-state hunting is something that you should start as early in the year as possible to ensure you don’t miss deadlines and that you’re able to get fees paid on time.
Knowing the Regulations
As you begin to navigate your future hunting season, it pays to take the time to read through regulations. Every year, I pick up the paper copies of the regulations for all the species I’m interested in hunting. I use them to determine when and where I’d like to hunt and which tags or permits I might need to put in for. And I keep them in my truck during the season to keep in step with the law at all times.
It can be a season-ending mistake (and a hefty fine) to shoot a doe in the wrong spot with the wrong tag or permit, and it’s easier to do than you’d think. An app like onX Hunt can also help you figure out which unit you stand in so you can match your tags/permits to the correct location. And it can help you differentiate public land from private land, which is huge.
If something does go wrong, it’s better to self-report and explain your mistake to your local warden rather than risk the major blowback of hiding the evidence.
The first year or two hunting can be a bit of a head game just trying to figure out all the ins, outs, and steps required to get into the field. But don’t sweat it too much.
It’s worth noting that asking around for detailed info about a hunter’s tag and license may lead to a black mark on your hunting etiquette. A lot of hunters are seriously protective of the areas they hunt, and they can be wary of questions specific to locations. If you get pushback, don’t be too surprised.
But most hunters are very happy to help explain the legalities of a state system. If you need help, reach out to a trusted friend who is willing to mentor you, or just call your local fish and game agency. Or you can simply dig in, grab your state’s guidelines, and start working your way through the process. As you gain more familiarity with hunting, the process will get easier and easier.